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Schools Remain Relatively Low Risk For COVID-19 Despite Community Spread, NC Health Official Says

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Ann Doss Helms
Cotswold Elementary students get temperature checks as they arrive for their first day back in person Monday.

North Carolina's health director told the state Board of Education Thursday that it’s safe to keep bringing students back for in-person classes, despite increases in community spread of COVID-19.

The state’s COVID-19 cases are on the rise, though Dr. Elizabeth Tilson told the board it’s not as bad here as in many parts of the country. She said she understands why people are worried about sending kids back to school.

North Carolina Health Director Elizabeth Tilson

"We’re not hair on fire," she said, "but we are pretty vulnerable and we need to be exceedingly vigilant, especially as we’re seeing those cases go up."

Tilson says national, international and North Carolina numbers all show that schools are relatively safe, even as growing numbers of students return to in-person classes. This week, for instance, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools brought back almost 40,000 elementary students.

Tilson says the state has had 390 cases linked to K-12 school clusters — that is, cases that were apparently spread at school.

"Although yes, there are cases and there are clusters in schools — and I think we all expected that — we still are not seeing our school settings as a big driver of the cases," she said.

Urban And Rural Concerns

Early in the pandemic, COVID-19 was most prevalent in urban areas and among Black and Latino residents, but Tilson said that’s shifting: "The surge we’re seeing now is in our rural white population."

But Tilson also referred to state data that indicates Mecklenburg and all surrounding counties have COVID-19 rates that indicate “the highest risk of transmission in schools” — that is, at least 200 cases per 100,000 residents over the past 14 days.

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Slide from Thursday's presentation to the state Board of Education.

The latest state map shows Mecklenburg, Union, Cabarrus, Rowan and Iredell counties in the 200s. Lincoln County has 455 cases per 100,000 residents, and Gaston and Catawba counties are over 500.

Gaston, Lincoln and Catawba counties have positive COVID-19 testing rates over 8%, which the state labels "higher risk of transmission in schools." The other counties are between 5% and 8%, considered moderate risk.

Tilson told the Board of Education it’s important for students to be in school. She said the best thing schools can do is model safe behavior, such as wearing masks, keeping safe distances and washing hands.

"What will happen in the schools will be dependent upon what is going on in the communities around them," she said.

Pandemic Slows Vaccination

Tilson told the board there's another health concern created by the pandemic: Families have delayed getting students the vaccines required to enter kindergarten, seventh grade and 12th grade. The state has extended the deadline to the end of the year, but "we are going to have to push really, really, really hard to make sure that we are getting those required, regular vaccines up to date before Dec. 30," she said.

Those vaccines protect against such diseases as measles, whooping cough, polio, chickenpox and meningitis.

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